Brian Lee Palmer and his wife Mikkel have both been patients at the Vermont State Hospital, but they were very different experiences.
Palmer was committed the first time in 1985 after wounding his wife and son with a gun during an alcohol-fueled rage. He was diagnosed with Schizophrenia.
"It's sort of like not being in this world and not being in the next world -- you're trapped -- like in the twilight zone on TV. And that's where I was," said Palmer.
After serving his time, and later self-publishing several books about his experience, Palmer says his treatment helped.
"It was a better place for me than where I was on the outside, being around my ex-wife and all that. And I think that's true for a lot of people. IT's probably a better place than where they were in society," Palmer said.
His wife, Mikkel, was committed under very different circumstances.
"And so it began. The shock treatment began."
After suffering a severe head injury in a car accident as a teen, she was committed in 1963, and endured ten years of what she describes as, emotionally painful treatment, administered by some staff members that could be cruel.
"Please don't ever give me another shock treatment. I woke up during the last one. She said I ordered 20 shock treatments for you and 20 shock treatments is what your going to get," said Mikkel Palmer.
Both the Palmers were patients during a time of rapid reform and change at the state hospital that can be traced back to the end of World War 2. Dr. Rupert Chittick took over the superintendents job in 1944 -- inheriting what he would later describe as deplorable conditions. Some wards were infested with lice and bedbugs. Other areas crawled with rats, mice and cockroaches. This at a time when there was a critical shortage of staff -- and the patient population was near all time highs.
After visiting the hospital in 1951, WCAX Radio news analyst Mary Spargo reported:
"I saw our fellow human beings, fellow Vermonters herded together closer than a Vermont farm would think of keeping cattle in a barn."
Superintendent Chittick, joined a few years later by Dr. George Brooks, instituted a number of changes; modernizing turn of the century buildings and equipment, launching training programs for staff, and Improving living conditions for patients.
Perhaps the most novel idea, letting patients watch TV.
Dr. Brooks, who would later go on to become superintendent, raised his family in a house across the street from the hospital.
Peter Brooks, Dr. Brooks' son, explains, "He started when the back wards were just places where people stayed, sometimes most of their lives. And I said that must have been so awful, I said how did you do that? How could you stand this? And he said, you had to go to work everyday thinking, we can make this better. We can make this better, so I think he took that kind of faith and hope into his work all the time."
By 1954 a new class of drugs was coming into use, anti-psychotics like Thorazine, that made it possible to subdue patients and avoid some of controversial treatments like insulin shock and lobotomy.
Robert Pierattini, M.D.. Professor and Chair Department of Psychiatry, said, "From roughly 1955 to 1970 there was a revolution in the available treatments for the major illnesses that would probably send someone to the hospital."
Dr. Brooks embraced these new drugs and the promises they brought. In a well known study, he worked with a group of schizophrenic patients to develop social and work skills -- giving them the confidence to cope with daily living.
"Especially in the summer, there would be many, many patients just outdoors, around the grounds, and then they'd be headed up town," said Peter Brooks.
Those who knew Dr. Brooks said he could cut through bureaucracy to quickly get to the heart of an issue.
Former AHS Secretary Con Hogan said, "He was a strong man. He came from an era when he was in charge. There was no Agency of human services so he had his own path."
Dr. Brooks' other son, Jamie Brooks, said "He once said he'd discovered a cure for psycho phobia which is the fear you are going crazy. He's like, 'ok, your crazy, now what are you going to do?"
And for patients like Brian Palmer and his wife MIkkel, Dr. Brooks practical and patient-centered style of treatment meant a return to the community, work, and a sense of normalcy.
"I'd mention the government and how terrible it was and he'd say, 'yeah, Democracy is a terrible form of government, but its the best we got.' That would be his answer. He simplified things and he'd seen enough patients so that he could really understand them," said Palmer.
"He hoped that at the end of his tenure, basically the state hospital would be as small as it could be or closed. And that was his guiding light always -- was how do we get patients cured, how do we get them out into the community and I always thought that was a great philosophy." said Peter Brooks.
It was a philosophy that would help change the treatment and living conditions for the mentally ill across the country.
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